DEAD MAN WALKING

Of Monsters, Murder and Divine Mercy

“Sister, I won’t ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have,” sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie’s title song while the end credits roll over the screen – giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean‘s nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry “white trash,” those men who are “God’s mistake,” as one victim’s father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn”t commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution “so my momma knows I didn’t do this” than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row – the rape-murder of a couple on lovers’ lane – from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn’t go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie’s greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims’ families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as “part of their job” – with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” There are the convicts’ families, marginalized as a result of their brothers’ and sons’ acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. (“Now I’m famous,” Poncelet’s mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. “A regular Ma Barker!”) And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict’s lungs and heart – “his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon,” Poncelet’s attorney says at his pardon board hearing. “It was important to us to show all sides of the issue,” explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD’s commentary track, “not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality … Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill.”

At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie’s other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas – this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun – director Tim Robbins’s way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more clichéd versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for “loopholes” in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. (“I like that,” he comments when she quotes Jesus’s “the truth shall make you free.” “So I pass that lie detector test, I’m home free.”) Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

“It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” Poncelet’s attorney explains on one occasion; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America’s most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you’re still for the death penalty after having watched it – don’t claim ignorance as to what is involved.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Tim Robbins
  • Executive Producers: Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
  • Producers: Tim Robbins / John Kilik / Rudd Simmons
  • Screenplay: Tim Robbins
  • Based on a nonfiction account by: Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
  • Music: David Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Sister Helen Prejean
  • Sean Penn: Matthew Poncelet
  • Robert Prosky: Hilton Barber
  • Margo Martindale: Sister Colleen
  • Raymond J. Barry: Earl Delacroix
  • Peter Sarsgaard: Walter Delacroix
  • R. Lee Ermey: Clyde Percy
  • Celia Weston: Mary Beth Percy
  • Missy Yager: Hope Percy
  • Jenny Krochmal: Emily Percy
  • Roberta Maxwell: Lucille Poncelet
  • Jack Black: Craig Poncelet
  • Jon Abrahams: Sonny Poncelet
  • Arthur Bridgers: Troy Poncelet
  • Lois Smith: Helen’s Mother
  • Steve Carlisle: Helen’s Brother
  • Helen Hester: Helen’s Sister
  • Michael Cullen: Carl Vitello
  • Scott Wilson: Chaplain Farley
  • Barton Heyman: Captain Beliveau
  • Steve Boles: Sergeant Neal Trapp
  • Nesbitt Blaisdell: Warden Hartman
  • Ray Aranha: Luis Montoya
  • Larry Pine: Guy Gilardi
  • Kevin Cooney: Governor Benedict
  • Gil Robbins: Bishop Norwich
  • Adele Robbins: Nurse
  • Mary Robbins: Aide to Governor Benedict
  • Miles Robbins: Boy in Church
  • Jack Henry Robbins: Opossum Kid
  • Helen Prejean: Woman at Vigil (uncredited)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
Screen Actors Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • 2nd Place, Best Actor: Sean Penn
American Political Film Society Awards (1996)
  • Exposé Award
Humanitas Prize (USA) (1996)
  • Feature Film Category: Tim Robbins
Independent Spirit Awards (1996)
  • Best Male Lead: Sean Penn
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards ( 1997)
  • Favorite Actress, Drama: Susan Sarandon
Online Film & Television Association (1997)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame: Motion Picture
Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Actor: Sean Penn
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Competition): Tim Robbins
  • Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Tim Robbins
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Tim Robbins
  • Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actor): Sean Penn
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1996)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress) – “Dead Man Walking”

 

Links

Advertisements

THE CLIENT

Reggie to the Rescue

You gotta hand it to John Grisham: Nobody has the various lawyer clichés down pat as well as him – in fact, it almost seems as if he invented or at least, reinvented many of them. As in most of his thrillers, we get a whole handful in The Client: the slimy mafia lawyer, the power-hungry politician-to-be, the self-aggrandizing ambulance-chaser, the grandfatherly judge and, of course, the motherly family law practitioner who turned to legal practice after overcoming a few troubles of her own. I think that leaves only the greedy corporate attorney, his cousin the corrupt judge and their perpetual antagonists, the starving public interest lawyer and the inquisitive student prodigy unrepresented here; but still, not a bad collection for a single thriller, even by Grisham. (And that doesn’t even include the count of dumb and / or malicious cops, slick tabloid journalists and ruthless mobsters running around in this story.) But never mind: The Client is one of John Grisham‘s best-ever novels, and this movie surpasses many another big-screen adaptation of his books by several leagues. For Grisham at the top of his game is also an excellent storyteller, and in the hands of director Joel Schumacher his tale of beleaguered eleven-year-old Mark Sway who gets in trouble by becoming the reluctant last confidant of suicidal defense attorney Jerome “Romey” Clifford comes to life in spot-on and truly gripping fashion.

Although not even a teenager yet, Mark (Brad Renfro) is as tough as they come – a Memphis trailer park kid who gets most of his education on life’s really important aspects from TV, has already helped his mom (Mary-Louise Parker) get rid of the wife-beating guy he now calls his “ex-father,” and since then has been the man in the house, taking care of his eight-year-old brother Ricky whenever their mother is at work (i.e., most of the time). So Mark doesn’t scare easily; and even if he really is afraid, he’d rather drop dead than admit it. But with both the mob and the feds on his trail – the former out to kill him before he can share the dirty little secret they suspect Romey has spilled before blowing out his brains, the latter hell-bent on making him share that very secret – even Mark has to face the fact that he is in way over his head … and yes, he’s scared, too; and not just a little. Worse, his brother is out cold, in hospital being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder because watching Romey’s suicide was more than his delicate eight-year-old soul could take, and their mother is in hospital with Ricky on the doctor’s orders because Ricky might need her when he wakes up. (Consequently she’s also out of a job, because her sweat-shop employer doesn’t take kindly to this sort of family emergency). Reluctantly, Mark therefore concludes that he needs an attorney. And in short order, he lands on the doorstep of Regina “Reggie” Love (Susan Sarandon), middle-aged but only a few years out of law school, through which she put herself after her husband left her for a younger woman, not without depriving her of their children’s custody and branding her an unfit mother. But what starts as a hesitant relationship at best on Mark’s side soon turns out his one stroke of luck, because Reggie is probably the only lawyer in town not afraid to take on even powerful U.S. Attorney “Reverend” Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) and the FBI, and ultimately willing to put her own job at risk for her client.

While condensing some of its elements, the movie’s screenplay follows Grisham‘s novel fairly closely, taking part of its dialogue straight from the book. Yet, The Client lives not only from John Grisham‘s gripping story but also – and primarily – from its characters and outstanding cast, including the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh (FBI Agent McThune), William H. Macy (Ricky’s doctor), Anthony Edwards (Reggie’s assistant Clint), Ossie Davis (Judge Roosevelt) and Walter Olkewicz (“Romey” Clifford). Unquestioningly most memorable, however, is the quintet at the movie’s center. Brad Renfro was selected by Schumacher for his first-ever screen appearance as Mark because he had a somewhat similar background as the story’s hero and thus, an intuitive understanding that, along with his innate toughness, ultimately proved more convincing than the acting skills of more experienced child actors; and indeed, he so compellingly carries his part that he deservedly garnered a 1995 Young Artists Award. Susan Sarandon earned another Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Reggie, who actually listens to her clients and makes sure even those of their desires that may seem trivial to others are taken care of; such as Dianne Sway’s wish for a walk-in closet. (Sarandon‘s Academy-Award nomination was her fourth after Atlantic City, Thelma and Louise and Lorenzo’s Oil; but although she had to wait yet another year to finally score an Oscar with Dead Man Walking, The Client at least won her a BAFTA Award). Tommy Lee Jones plays the bible-quoting Foltrigg with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and thus, although occasionally terrifying, makes him a more complete and almost even likeable character; much more so than he is in Grisham‘s novel. Mary-Louise Parker’s Dianne Sway truly brings to life the young besieged trailer park mom desperately trying to get a grip on her life, and Anthony LaPaglia finally is simultaneously frightening and unintentionally funny as the slick but not overly bright mob killer Barry “The Blade” Muldanno, the source of Clifford’s (and consequently everybody else’s) problems.

So, watch this for the outstanding performances of the five central characters as well as the fine ensemble cast, for one of John Grisham‘s most gripping yarns, and for Joel Schumacher’s excellent editing and sense of place. This may not be a major milestone in movie history (except regarding Brad Renfro’s career of course), but it’s without question one of the best thrillers of the past 25 years and easily recommended on that basis alone.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Brothers (1994)
  • Director: Joel Schumacher
  • Producers: Arnon Milchan & Steven Reuther
  • Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman & Robert Getchell
  • Based on a novel by: John Grisham
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Reggie Love
  • Tommy Lee Jones: Roy Foltrigg
  • Brad Renfro: Mark Sway
  • Mary-Louise Parker: Dianne Sway
  • David Speck: Ricky Sway
  • Anthony LaPaglia: Barry Muldano
  • J.T. Walsh: Jason McThune
  • Ossie Davis: Judge Harry Roosevelt
  • Anthony Edwards: Clint Von Hooser
  • Anthony Heald: Larry Trumann
  • Bradley Whitford: Thomas Fink
  • Micole Mercurio: Momma Love
  • Will Patton: Sergeant Hardy
  • William Sanderson: Wally Boxx
  • Dan Castellaneta: Slick Moeller
  • Ron Dean: John Sulari
  • Kim Coates: Paul Gronke
  • William H. Macy: Dr. Greenway
  • Kimberly Scott: Doreen
  • Walter Olkewicz: Jerome “Romey” Clifford

 

Major Awards and Honors

Young Artist Awards (1995)
  • Best Performance by a Young Actor Starring in a Motion Picture: Brad Renfro
ASCAP Awards (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
BAFTA Awards (1995)
  • Best Leading Actress: Susan Sarandon

 

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Paper Moon

As a playwright, Tennessee Williams was to the South what William Faulkner was as a fiction writer: a creative genius who revolutionized not only the region’s arts scene and literature but that of 20th century America as a whole, bringing a Southern voice to the forefront while addressing universally important themes, and influencing and inspiring generations of later writers.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning “A Streetcar Named Desire” dates from the peak of Williams‘s creativity, the period between 1944 (A Glass Menagerie) and 1955 (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his second Pulitzer-winner). After its successful 1947 run on Broadway, Streetcar was adapted into a screenplay by Williams himself for this movie produced and directed by Elia Kazan, starring the entire Broadway cast except Jessica Tandy, who was replaced by the star of the play’s London production, Vivien Leigh. The piece takes its title from one of the New Orleans streetcar lines that protagonist Blanche DuBois (Leigh) rides on her way to the apartment of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter), foreshadowing her later path, from (ever-unfulfilled) Desire to Cemetery (death, or the loss of reality) and a street called Elysian Fields, like the ancient mythological land of the dead.

Although Blanche is the person most visibly engaging in deception (of herself and others), almost everyone of the characters suffers loss after a brutal reality check: Stella, who hasn’t been back home for years, first learns from Blanche that their genteel home Belle Reve (literally: “beautiful dream”) is “lost” – although in what manner precisely Blanche doesn’t specify, which immediately raises the suspicion of Stella’s husband Stanley (Marlon Brando) – only to later hear from Stanley that under the veneer of Blanche’s appearance as a delicate Southern lady lies a promiscuous past, and the true circumstances of her ouster from her job and ultimately from their home town were not as Blanche would have Stella believe. Stanley’s friend Mitch (Karl Malden), who despite their disparate social backgrounds intends to marry Blanche after they are drawn to each other by their mutual need for “somebody” in their life, is similarly disillusioned by Stanley, and subsequently by Blanche herself when he insists on seeing her in bright light instead of the dim light of dancehalls and of the paper lamp she has insisted on hanging over Stella and Stanley’s living room lamp, neither able to face the effects of age and a profligate lifestyle herself nor willing to reveal them to others. And Blanche’s own loss of innocence, finally, set in years earlier, when she found her young husband in bed with another man and he committed suicide after she publicly reproached him. “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life,” Tennessee Williams says about A Streetcar Named Desire in Kazan’s 1988 autobiography A Life; and in a letter opposing the movie’s censoring before its release he described the story as being about “ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society.”

The brute, of course, is Stanley, who not only becomes the catalyst of Blanche’s fate and the destroyer of Stella’s, Mitch’s and Blanche’s own illusions, but is her antagonist in everything from background to personality: Where she is a fading belle dreaming of days gone by he is all youthful virility, a working-class man living in the here and now; where she is refined he is crude, and where she engages in pretense, he tears down the facade behind which she is hiding. The conversation during which Stanley tells Stella about Blanche’s past is pointedly set against Blanche’s humming the Arlen/Harburg tune It’s Only a Paper Moon, which sees love transforming life into a fantasy world, which in turn however “wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.” Yet, as portrayed by Marlon Brando, who with this movie stormed into public awareness with his unique and volcanic approach to acting, Stanley is no mere vulgar beast but a complex, often controversial character, despite his brutal streak almost childishly dependant on his wife and frequently hiding his own insecurities under his raw appearance (thus putting up a certain front as well, but unlike Blanche’s, a socially acceptable, even common one). Ever the method actor, Brando reportedly stayed in character even during filming breaks; much to the disgust of Vivien Leigh, for whom lines like “[h]e’s like an animal. … Thousands of years have passed him right by and there he is: Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the stone-age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle” must consequently have come from the bottom of her heart.

In early 1950s’ society, Streetcar was considered way too risqué – even downright sordid – to be presented to moviegoing audiences without severe censorship, which Williams and Kazan were only partly able to fight. One of the most substantial changes made in the adaptation was that at the end of the movie Stanley is punished for his brutality towards Blanche, whereas in the play’s cynical original ending he is the only character experiencing no loss at all; indeed seeing his world restored after Blanche’s exit. Since Kazan’s suggestion to produce two alternate versions (one to please the censors, one in conformity with Williams‘s play) was rejected, even the 1993 “Original Director’s Version” retains its altered, censorship-induced ending. Therefore, the play will forever constitute the last word on Williams‘s own intentions. But even in its censored version this movie was a deserved quadruple Oscar- and multiple other award-winner (albeit undeservedly not for Brando). It has long-since become a true classic: a cinematic gem of first-rate direction and superlative performances throughout.

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
Hart Crane, “The Broken Tower”
(Preface to the published edition of Tennessee Williams’s play.)

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Brothers (1951)
  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Producer: Charles K. Feldman
  • Screenplay: Tennessee Williams
  • Based on a play by: Tennessee Williams
  • Adaptation: Oscar Saul
  • Music: Alex North
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Harry Stradling
  • Art Direction: Richard Day / Bertram Tuttle (supervising art director, uncredited)
  • Set Decoration: George James Hopkins
Cast
  • Vivien Leigh: Blanche
  • Marlon Brando: Stanley
  • Kim Hunter: Stella
  • Karl Malden: Mitch
  • Richard Garrick: A Doctor
  • Ann Dere: The Matron

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1952)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Vivien Leigh
    Vivien Leigh was not present at the awards ceremony. Greer Garson accepted on her behalf.
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Karl Malden
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter was not present at the awards ceremony. Bette Davis accepted on her behalf.
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White: Richard Day and George James Hopkins
American Film Institute:
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 45
  • Top 100 Love Stories – No. 67
  • Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 4 (Marlon Brando)
  • Top 25 Stars (female) – No. 16 (Vivien Leigh)
  • Top 25 Film Scores – No. 19
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 45th: “Stella! Hey, Stella!”  (Stanley Kowalski)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 75th: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (Blanche DuBois)
Golden Globes (1952)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Kim Hunter
BAFTA Awards (1953)
  • Best British Actress: Vivien Leigh
Venice Film Festival (Italy) (1951)
  • Special Jury Prize: Elia Kazan
    For having produced a stage play on screen, poetically interpreting the humanity of the characters, thanks to masterly direction.
  • Volpi Cup Best Actress: Vivien Leigh

 

Links

Merken

Merken

Merken

Merken

Merken

Eudora Welty: One Writer’s Beginnings

One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization) - Eudora WeltyGlimpses Into a Unique Writer’s Mind

“Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” Eudora Welty entitled the three chapters of her autobiography “One Writer’s Beginnings.” And while these may be steps that most writers will undergo at some point, Welty’s compact memoir is notable both because it allows a rare glimpse into the celebrated writer’s otherwise fiercely protected private life and it illustrates the roots from which sprang such extraordinary protagonists as “The Ponder Heart”‘s Edna Earle and Daniel Ponder, Miss Eckhart and the Morgana families in “The Golden Apples” and, of course, the anti-heroes of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” Judge McKelva, his second wife Fay and (most importantly) his daughter Laurel.

A native and – with minimal exceptions – lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty received her first introduction to storytelling as a listener; and early on, learned to sharpen her ears not only to a story’s contents but also to its narrator and its protagonists’ individual nature: “[T]here [never was] a line read that I didn’t hear,” and “any room … at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to,” she notes in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” adding that the discovery that all those stories had been written by someone, not come into existence of their own, not only surprised but also severely disappointed her. Equally importantly, family visits to relatives brought out the born observer in her; each trip providing its own lessons and revelations, each a story onto itself – the seed from which later grew her manifold unforgettable literary creations. At the same time, her father’s interest in technology introduced her to photography as a means of capturing visual impressions, one moment at a time; and when traveling around Mississippi as an agent for a state agency (her first job) she learned to use that camera as “a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know” and discovered that “to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was [then] the greatest need I had.” Not surprisingly, her photography was published in several collections which have found much acclaim in their own right.

Thus, from early childhood on, Eudora Welty not only had a keen sense of the world around her but also, of words as such: of their existence as much as the interrelation between their sound, physical appearance and the things they stand for. Encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and over her father’s worries (he considered fiction writing an occupation of dubitable financial promise and, worse, inferior to fact because it was “not true”), Welty embarked on a writer’s path which would lead her to award-winning heights and to a reputation as one of the South’s finest writers, with as abounding as obvious comparisons to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner in particular; a literary debt she acknowledged when she wrote that “his work, though it can’t increase in itself, increases us” and “[w]hat is written in the South from now on is going to be taken into account by Faulkner’s work” (“Must the Novelist Crusade?”, 1965).

An approach that Welty herself developed early on was to consider the publication of her short stories in periodicals merely a step towards each story’s final shape, and she generally revised her stories before including them in their various collections. – Not only a keen observer, she was also a writer endowed with a sharp sense of humor and satire, and with the gift to brilliantly use location, localisms, accents, patterns of speech and customs to make a point.

Yet, “[t]here is no explanation outside fiction for what its writer is learning to do,” Eudora Welty maintained in her essay “Writing and Analyzing a Story;” explaining that each story references only the writer’s vision at the moment of the creation of that very story, and the creative process itself: nothing that can be “mapped and plotted” but a product taking shape within the process of its creation as such, thus giving each story a unique identity of its own. And considering her reluctance to comment on, or to explain her own fiction writing, the insights into that creative process’s origins she allowed her readers in “One Writer’s Beginnings” are all the more to be treasured.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

“She read Dickens in the same spirit she would have eloped with him.”

“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”

Merken

Merken

Edward Humes: Mississippi Mud

Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia - Edward HumesDixie, Dirt and a Determined Daughter

“Mississippi Mud” is, as author Edward Humes’s introductory words explain, the name of that particular kind of poker where the cards themselves become irrelevant and the only thing that really counts is the ability to bluff and betray. It is also the name of a sweet, rich pie made from chocolate, eggs, sugar, vanilla and corn syrup (and according to some recipes, vanilla ice cream and/or whipped cream). In this book, “Mississippi Mud” is Humes’s term of reference for the loosely organized group of people otherwise known as the “Dixie Mafia,” whose members not so long ago used to leave traces of their unsavory plots all over the “Old South,” from Louisiana to Texas and beyond. And one day in September 1987, their activities hit home in the Gulf Coast resort city of Biloxi, Mississippi.

Not that this should necessarily have come as a complete surprise, you will say, if you’ve heard the gossip about the city’s one-time notoriety, if you know some of the historic facts that have contributed to those rumors (such as early 18th century con artist John Law’s get-rich-quick scheme which crushed the hopes of thousands of European settlers, or the exploits of James Copeland, arguably the “Dixie Mafia”‘s 19th century forefather), or if you have made it all the way through this book’s first third to read Humes’s account of Biloxi’s past. And of course, from New York to Atlantic City, Chicago, Las Vegas, Palermo, Corleone, Moscow, Hong Kong and Macau, there are plenty of cities large and small all over the world that have at one time or another seen their share of mafia, mob and triad activity; and gambling, illegal liquor and sex schemes often, although not necessarily, have something to do with it. More than once, those who have made it their business to rake out the mud get bogged down by it and die, instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice thus adding to the list of casualties in the seemingly never ending war against organized crime. And all too often the culprits get away with murder: literally so.

Well, not here, however, and that is the difference in this story – or one of them, anyway. Granted, the “Dixie Mafia” may not have been as intricately organized as the Chinese triads, any of their Italian and Russian counterparts or the organizations run by the likes of Al Capone, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano and John Gotti; but Humes’s account of a city government and a police force partly unwilling and partly too incompetent to mount a proper investigation into the murder of an outspoken critic of official corruption and of her husband, a prominent judge, sounds eerily familiar; and so does the involvement of a contender for public office with a group of notorious criminals running a scam out of a supposedly high security prison, with little to no interference from prison officials, and with a shadowy organizer pulling his strings in the background. The odds of successfully pitting a sole determined woman – the victims’ eldest daughter – and her dogged investigator against the combined forces of political clout, an endless supply of seedy money, utter ruthlessness and sheer police incompetence were slim to none. Yet, Lynne Sposito persevered, and after ten years, finally got justice for her murdered parents.

Edward Humes tells the story of Sposito’s quest with a journalist’s detachment; in a chilling matter-of-fact style and with an excellent eye for detail. He does not fall into the trap of glorifying the victims; both Vincent and Margaret Sherry were far from perfect, and the reader learns about their flaws and personal pitfalls as well as their strengths and, in particular, Margaret Sherry’s undying commitment to rooting out corruption in Biloxi. Nor does Humes unduly vilify those involved in the conspiracy (although given their colorful personal and criminal histories and their various roles in the conspiracy to kill the Sherrys, any further vilification would have been unnecessary anyway and would actually have taken away a lot of the narrative’s effectiveness). Equally unsettling as “In Cold Blood,” to this day the benchmark of all true crime literature, although less literary in its description than Truman Capote’s account or, for that matter, John Behrendt’s famous “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Humes’s “Mississippi Mud” unravels the web of corruption and crime in which much (although undoubtedly not all) of Biloxi’s society once used to be caught. And although the consequences of the events related here won’t be as terminal for any of the conspirators as they are for Lynne Sposito and her parents, Mrs. Sposito can now at last, as Humes quotes her at the end of the book’s paperback edition (which updates the narrative’s conclusion vis-a-vis the earlier hardcover version), “get a good night’s sleep” again – thus eerily echoing the sentiment expressed in Eliot Ness’s (Kevin Costner’s) final comment in Brian de Palma’s “The Untouchables,” who, when asked by a reporter what he will do after prohibition has been lifted, drily responds: “I’m going to have a drink.”

Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937 – 1955 (Library of America)

 : Dragon Country

“It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial,” Tennessee Williams wrote in the 1948 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” eventually added as a preface to the “memory play” that catapulted him to stardom, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944). Prophetic words of a man who drew heavily on his own experience, on life in the economically depressed South, homosexuality, alcoholism, physical and mental infirmity, violence, passion, desire, love and loss, but most of all his profound sense of humanity and his understanding of the drama of everyday life to create Dragon Country, that uninhabitable and yet inhabited world, that land of unendurable but nevertheless endured pain (also the title of a 1970 collection of plays) of unforgettable pieces such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), “Summer and Smoke” (1948), “The Rose Tattoo” (1951), “Camino Real” (1953), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), “Orpheus Descending” (1957), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958), “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1959), “The Night of the Iguana” (1961) and “Not About Nightingales” (set in 1938 but only brought to the stage 50 years later).

Born Thomas Lanier Williams to an overbearing, hard-drinking, abusive, frequently absent father and a doting mother, Tennessee acquired the sobriquet he later chose as his first name in university, where his Deep South accent made him an easy target for his classmates. A writer since his youth, he saw his first short story (“Isolated”) published in a high school newspaper; and after several other prose publications, his second play “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!” was produced by a Memphis amateur company in 1935. (His first play, the unstaged “Beauty Is the Word,” had been a 1930 University of Missouri drama class assignment which, submitted to the school’s Dramatic Arts Club contest, won the first honorable mention ever to be awarded to a freshman). After a stint with his father’s shoe company, where he had gone to work at parental insistence, he graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938. His big breakthrough came with “A Glass Menagerie;” the story of fading Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (who, like many of Williams’s most memorable characters, frantically clings to the illusion of a world gone by), her crippled daughter Laura (the owner of the titular glass figurine collection), “gentleman caller” Jim (Laura’s suitor), and Amanda’s son Tom, Williams’s thinly veiled alter ego who, like the playwright, sees his vocation as a poet crushed under his daily job at a shoe factory. Yet, looking back at his struggling life preceding “Glass Menagerie,” Williams later came to regard that time as more real than the life made possible by fame and fortune: in fact, “it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created,” he wrote in “The Catastrophe of Success.”

The present compilation, one of two volumes in the magnificent “Library of America” series, brings together the more significant works of Williams’s early years and of his peak as a playwright through 1955, including besides “Glass Menagerie” inter alia his two Pulitzer Prize winners (“A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), the only recently-rediscovered “Spring Storm” (1938) and “Not About Nightingales,” the initial, unsuccessful version of “Orpheus Descending” (“Battle of Angels,” 1940), as well as excerpts from the one-act play collection “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” (originally from 1945, augmented and republished 1953), among them the collection’s title piece plus “The Lady of Larkspur Lotion,” “Something Unspoken,” “This Property Is Condemned,” and others. The second Library of America volume covers Williams’s creative period after 1955. Neither tome is all-inclusive; a fully comprehensive compilation would easily have required three volumes for the plays alone, not to mention his poetry and prose; and a 1955 caesura certainly does make sense. Still: completists will have to look elsewhere in addition. Among the more significant omissions in this first volume are “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!” (which I would have liked to see included if only because it was his first-ever staged play) as well as the modestly successful “American Blues” (1939) and the remaining one-act plays from “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Volume 2 similarly focuses on Williams’s more significant later plays; omitting, e.g., “Gnädiges Fräulein,” “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” “The Notebook of Trigorin” – his adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Seagull” – and his infamous “Baby Doll” screenplay, as well as its stage adaptation “Tiger Tail.”

Although many of Williams’s works reached audiences not only on stage but also on the silver screen, beginning in the 1950s he came under increased scrutiny due to his unconventional lifestyle. Even in his plays’ most successful screen adaptations, the more controversial elements, such as Brick’s unavowed homosexuality in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” were either muted or censored entirely; and particularly in later years, criticism leveled against his plays was often truly motivated by objections against the man himself. – “The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is … the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis,” Williams wrote in a stage direction in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But while his own life’s thunderstorm did eventually prove fatal (he choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in 1983), over the course of his life he revolutionized Southern drama in a way only comparable to Faulkner’s impact on literary fiction, and set a shining example for generations of later playwrights. All-encompassing or not: the Library of America’s collection of his works is an excellent place to begin a journey of appreciation into his Dragon Country.

 

A Selection of Quotes
The Glass Menagerie

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”

“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”

“Every time you come in yelling that God damn “Rise and Shine!” “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself, “How lucky dead people are!”

“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.”

“People go to the movies instead of moving. Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them.”

A Streetcar Named Desire

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

“What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? – I wish I knew … Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can …”

Merken

Eudora Welty: The Ponder Heart

The Ponder Heart - Eudora WeltyKeen observations in an exquisite piece of humorous Southern writing

“The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” and Eudora Welty expressed a similar sentiment roughly 20 years later in her memoir “One Writer’s Beginnings,” when she wrote that ever since she had first been read to, and then started to read herself, there had never been a line that she had not heard as her eyes followed the words on the page, possibly out of the desire to read as a listener. And indeed, as Flannery O’Connor also remarked in the above-mentioned essay, “the Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear.”

While proof of the truth of these statements can be found throughout the literature written by both of these preeminent Southern novelists, Eudora Welty’s novella “The Ponder Heart” is perhaps one of the most obvious examples thereof as it is actually written in the form of a monologue, addressed to an imaginary traveler who happens to find himself – by force of circumstance rather than plan – in the small town of Clay, Mississippi, somewhere off the main highway and not quite halfway between Tupelo and the Mississippi-Alabama border, in Edna Earle Ponder’s Beulah Hotel; face to face with the hostess. “My Uncle Daniel’s just like your uncle, if you’ve got one … he loves society and he gets carried away,” she immediately tells her visitor about her Uncle Daniel’s “one weakness” and proceeds, without further ado, to tell her family’s story; thus proving herself afflicted by that same weakness of “getting carried away,” and as the reader/listener soon discovers, it is just as impossible to get a word in with her narrative as it is with Uncle Daniel Ponder.

But then, you don’t even really want to interrupt her: too often she makes you smile or laugh out loud at her descriptions of family and townsfolk, too much you are getting caught up in the story, and too acute is the appearance of her observations. For no doubt, Eudora Welty was not only a keen observer of Southern society; she also mastered the transformation of her observations into the written word with a skill matched only by a select few of her fellow Southern writers. And true to Welty’s reflection in her memoir – and to her desire to write as a listener, as much as she used to read as a listener – it is impossible not to actually hear Edna Earle talking to you as you turn the pages, in that unmistakable drawl which seems to roll past your ears languidly, much like the waves of the mighty Mississippi, and which smells of bourbon and magnolias.

Thus, in the space of less than 200 pages, we make the acquaintance of Grandpa Ponder, whose fortune would become Edna Earle’s to watch over and Uncle Daniel’s to give away, Uncle Daniel’s first wife Miss Teacake Magee née Sistrunk (who sang at her own wedding, which turned out to be bad luck because the marriage didn’t hold), his second wife Bonnie Dee Peacock (“a little thing with yellow fluffy hair,” white trash as trash can be, who after a couple months’ marriage “on trial” declared the trial over and left town, but was later lured back to Clay, much to her own misfortune) and of course Uncle Daniel himself, a big man with a big heart and only seemingly a simple soul who constantly needs minding, first by his father (Grandpa Ponder), then by Edna Earle – but who surprises you again and again with his unexpected, only half-conscious witticisms and insights: a veritable court jester in the medieval tradition with the flair of a 20th century gentleman raised in the traditions of the old South. And the story that unfolds before your eyes and ears is as colorful as its protagonists, from Uncle Daniel’s early commitment to an asylum to his trial for Bonnie Dee Peacock’s murder, with an outcome as wildly unexpected as only Daniel Ponder could have caused it.

Flannery O’Connor, who likewise created many a character who could have populated the world of Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart,” said that whenever she was asked why Southern writers in particular seemed to have a tendency to write about freaks, this was “because we are still able to recognize one.” She warned, however, that outlandish as they might be, the heroes of modern Southern literature are not primarily intended to be comic but rather, prophetic figures reminding us of a long-forgotten responsibility, and she noted that any fiction coming out of the South was invariably liable to be called “grotesque,” unless it actually was grotesque, in which case it would be called “photographic realism.” (“The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.”) And Eudora Welty, whose keen sense of observation in fact did find expression not only in her writing but also in a number of celebrated collections of photography, called location, in an essay written the same year as “The Ponder Heart,” “the crossroads of circumstance” and “the heart’s field;” intrinsically linked to the emotions and experiences described in any good piece of fiction writing. (“Place in Fiction,” 1954.) In that sense, “A Ponder Heart” is a piece of Southern fiction in the best literary tradition – in addition to which, it is a pure delight to read.

Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir (Library of America)

Stories, Essays, and Memoirs (Library of America #102) - Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, Michael KreylingCreations of a unique voice

“Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” Eudora Welty entitled the three chapters of her autobiography “One Writer’s Beginnings,” the concluding entry in this collection, one of the two Library of America compilations dedicated to her work. And while these may be steps that most writers will undergo at some point, Welty’s compact autobiography is notable both because it allows a rare glimpse into the celebrated writer’s otherwise fiercely protected private life and it illustrates the roots from which sprang such extraordinary protagonists as “The Ponder Heart”‘s Edna Earle and Daniel Ponder, Miss Eckhart and the Morgana families in “The Golden Apples” and, of course, the anti-heroes of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” Judge McKelva, his second wife Fay and (most importantly) his daughter Laurel.

A native and – with minimal exceptions – lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty received her first introduction to storytelling as a listener; and early on, learned to sharpen her ears not only to a story’s contents but also to its narrator and its protagonists’ individual nature: “[T]here [never was] a line read that I didn’t hear,” and “any room … at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to,” she notes in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” adding that the discovery that all those stories had been written by someone, not come into existence of their own, not only surprised but also severely disappointed her. Equally importantly, family visits to relatives brought out the born observer in her; each trip providing its own lessons and revelations, each a story onto itself – the seed from which later grew the literary creations collected in this compilation and its companion volume. At the same time, her father’s interest in technology introduced her to photography as a means of capturing visual impressions, one moment at a time; and when traveling around Mississippi as an agent for a state agency (her first job) she learned to use that camera as “a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know” and discovered that “to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was [then] the greatest need I had” (“One Writer’s Beginnings:” Not surprisingly, her photography was published in several collections which have found much acclaim of their own.)

Thus, from early childhood on, Eudora Welty not only had a keen sense of the world around her but also, of words as such: of their existence as much as the interrelation between their sound, physical appearance and the things they stand for. Encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and over her father’s worries (he considered fiction writing an occupation of dubitable financial promise and, worse, inferior to fact because it was “not true”) Welty embarked on a writer’s path which would lead her to award-winning heights and to a reputation as one of the South’s finest writers, with as abounding as obvious comparisons to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner in particular; a literary debt she acknowledged when she wrote that “his work, though it can’t increase in itself, increases us” and “[w]hat is written in the South from now on is going to be taken into account by Faulkner‘s work” (“Must the Novelist Crusade?”, 1965). The Library of America dedicated two volumes to her work; one containing her novels, the other – this one – her short stories, essays (some, like her autobiography, based on a series of lectures) and her autobiography.

An approach that Welty developed early on was to consider the publication of her stories in periodicals merely a step towards each story’s final shape, and she generally revised her stories before including them in collections. This compilation brings together all her short stories in the versions intended to be final by Welty herself: the 1941 edition of “A Curtain of Green and Other Stories” (her first short story collection), the 1943 edition of “The Wide Net and Other Stories” and the 1949 edition of “The Golden Apples” – each collection suffered substantial editorial revisions in subsequent publications. Included are also two stand-alone short stories (“Where is This Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators”), the first one inspired by the 1963 murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and revised by Welty over the telephone after having been accepted by “The New Yorker,” to avoid a potentially prejudicial effect of its original ending on the then-impending trial.

A keen observer, Welty was also a writer endowed with a sharp sense of humor and satire, and with the gift to brilliantly use location, localisms, accents, patterns of speech and customs to make a point. Not a single word is wasted: “Marrying must have been some of his showing off – like man never married at all till he flung in,” we’re told about King MacLain in the opening story of “The Golden Apples,” “Shower of Gold.” And you don’t have to learn anything more about the man, do you? Equally as instructive on Welty’s writing are the eight essays included in this collection, all taken from the 1978 compilation “The Eye of the Story” and dealing with particular aspects of her own fiction as much as, more generally, with “Place in Fiction” (1954) and the fiction writer’s role (“Writing and Analyzing a Story,” originally published in 1955 under the title “How I Write” and substantially revised for its inclusion in “The Eye of the Story” and “Must the Novelist Crusade?”).

“There is no explanation outside fiction for what its writer is learning to do,” Eudora Welty maintained in “Writing and Analyzing a Story;” explaining that each story references only the writer’s vision at the moment of the creation of that story, and the creative process itself: nothing that can be “mapped and plotted” but a product taking shape in the process of creation itself, giving each story a unique identity of its own. And while her fiction, alas, can no longer grow any more than Faulkner‘s, she has left us enough of those unique creations to cherish for a long time to come.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

“She read Dickens in the same spirit she would have eloped with him.”

“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”

Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories - Flannery O'ConnorOddball prophets caught in a web they wove themselves.

They are misfits, wanderers, and souls searching for faith and absolution. Many of them are, to one extent or another, hypocrites; others are almost unbelievably naïve. All of them are Southerners – and yet, even the most outlandish among Flannery O’Connor’s protagonists come across as entirely believable, complex characters whom, regardless of location, you might expect to come across in your own travels, too; and there is no telling how such an encounter would turn out.

Of course, you would hope it does not prove quite as disastrous as the title story’s chance meeting of a family taking a wrong turn (on the road as much as figuratively) and the self-proclaimed Misfit haunting that particular area of Georgia; which culminates in a bizarre conversation, the failure of communication underneath which only adds to the reader’s growing feeling of helplessness in view of impending doom. And such a sense of irreversible destiny pervades many a story in this collection; yet, while as in O’Connor’s writing in general, her and her protagonists’ Catholic faith plays a dominant role in the course of the events, that course is not so much brought about by the hand of God as by the characters’ own acts, decisions, judgments and prejudices.

Freakish as they are, O’Connor’s (anti-)heroes are meant to be prophets, messengers of a long forgotten responsibility, as she explained in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South:” their prophecy is “a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up.” Often, she uses names, titles and items of every day life and imbues them with a new meaning in the context of her stories; this collection’s title story, for example, is named for a blues song popularized by Bessie Smith in the late 1920s, and a cautionary road sign commonly seen in the 1950s (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”) becomes the title and motto of a story about a wanderer’s encounter with a mother and her handicapped daughter who take him in, only to use that purported charity to their own advantage – at the end of which, predictably, nobody is the better off. Indeed, the endings of O’Connor’s stories are as far from your standard happy ending as you can imagine; and while you cannot help but develop, early on, a premonition of doom, most of the time the precise nature of that doom is anything but predictable.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories” was Flannery O’Connor’s first published collection of short stories; yet, by the time these stories appeared (nine of the ten were published in various magazines between 1953 and 1955 before their inclusion in this 1955 collection) she was already an accomplished writer, with not only a novel under her belt (“Wise Blood,” 1952) but also, and significantly, a master’s thesis likewise consisting of a collection of short stories, entitled “The Geranium and Other Stories” (1947; first published as a collection in 1971’s National Book Award winning “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” although several of those stories had likewise been published individually before). Two of the stories included in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” count among O’Connor’s six winners of the O’Henry Award for Short Fiction (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “The Circle in the Fire,” again an exploration of insincerity, half-hearted charity and its exploitation); and the collection as a whole, even more than her first novel, quickly established her as a masterful storyteller, endowed with vision, an unfailing sense for language and a supreme feeling for the use of irony; all of which have long since placed her firmly in the first tier of 20th century American authors.

Flannery O’Connor died, at the age of 39, of lupus, an inflammatory disease which in less severe forms may not be more than an (albeit substantial) nuisance, but which proved fatal in her case as well as that of her father before her. Her literary career, almost the sole focus of her life from the moment that she was diagnosed onwards, was thus cut short way before her time. Yet, to this day her writing holds a unique position in contemporary literature; and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an excellent place to start exploring her work.

 

Favorite Quote:

“Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.”

Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (Library of America)

Collected Works: Wise Blood / A Good Man is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear it Away / Everything that Rises Must Converge / Essays and Letters (Library of America #39) - Flannery O'ConnorA literary voice silenced way too early.

Flannery O’Connor did not even live to see her 40th birthday; she died, in 1964, of lupus, the same inflammatory disease which had killed her father when she was a mere teenager and which all too soon began to cripple her as well. A graduate of the Iowa State University’s journalism and writing program, she had started to write her first stories, poems and other pieces when she was still in high school, and had submitted a collection of six short stories entitled “The Geranium” as her master’s thesis in university. (Most of the stories contained in that collection were published individually in various magazines and anthologies around the time of their inclusion in the thesis; the collection as a whole, however, was first published only posthumously in the National Book Award winning “Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.”) Only a few years after having obtained her master’s degree, and after a prolonged residence at Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York, O’Connor began to spend time in hospitals and, in due course, was diagnosed with lupus. From that moment on, she focused on her writing even more than she had before – and the result were two novels, two short story collections, several stand-alone short stories, essays and other pieces of occasional prose, as well as a barrage of letters. The majority of that work product, including twenty-one previously unpublished letters, is reproduced in this collection published in the Library of America series; notably, the fiction part also includes, as one piece, O’Connor’s master’s thesis, “The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories.”

A native of Georgia, Flannery O’Connor defined herself as much as a Catholic writer as a Southerner; and she commented on the impact that regional influences on the one hand and her religion on the other hand had had on her writing in the 1963 essays “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” and “The Regional Writer.” Yet, while religion (and more specifically, Catholicism) certainly plays a big part in her writing, from the “Christian malgré lui,” as she herself characterized the hero of her first novel “Wise Blood” in the Author’s Note to book’s 1962 second edition, to the “odd folks out” and searching souls populating her short stories, and to her frequent biblical references, it would not do her writing justice to limit her to that realm, nor to that of “Southern” fiction. (No matter for which specific dramatic purpose a writer employed a Southern setting, he would still be considered to be writing about the South in general, and was thus left to get rid off the label of a “Southern writer … and all the misconceptions that go with it” as best he could, she quipped in her 1960 essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Rather, she added three years later in “The Regional Writer,” location matters to an author insofar as any author “operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet,” and it is up to him to find that precise spot and apply it to his writing.) Similarly, while her heroes are certainly not the kind of people you expect to meet on your daily errands (or do you?), it would shortchange them were we to succumb to the temptation of merely defining them as some particularly colorful examples of grotesque fiction. For one thing, “[t]o be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man,” as O’Connor noted in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” More fundamentally, however, she saw her calling – and that of any Southern author treading the same ground as William Faulkner and trying not to have their “mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down” – as an attempt to reach below the surface of the human existence to that realm “which is the concern of prophets and poets,” and to strike a balance between realism on the one hand and vision, poetry and compassion on the other; to recognize the expectations of her readers without making herself their slave.

Thus, the famously unexpected endings of Flannery O’Connor’s narratives are more than merely weird plot twists, the encounter between the grandmother and The Misfit in the title story of her first published short story collection “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955) is the result of a wrong turn in the road as much as that of a series of wrong choices, coincidences and essential miscommunications, and the title story of her second, posthumously published collection of short stories “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) truly does indicate more than a physical proposition and indeed, a situation applicable to the entire world, as O’Connor wrote in a 1961 letter regarding the initial publication of the collection’s title story in New World Writing.

A six-time winner of the O. Henry Award for Short Fiction and winner of the posthumously awarded 1972 National Book Award for her Collected Short Stories, in her short career as a writer Flannery O’Connor left an indelible mark on American literature, far transcending the borders of her native South. We can only speculate what she would have contributed had illness and death not intervened – and in a time when, as O’Connor wrote so prophetically in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” too many writers abandon vision and instead contend themselves with satisfying their readers’ more pedestrian expectations, her contributions would doubtless be invaluable. Alas, we are left with a body of work that fits neatly into this marvelously edited single-volume entry in the “Library of America” series – but the content of this one book alone is worth manifold that of the much ampler output of many a writer of recent years.

 

favorite Quotes:
Wise Blood

“In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

“Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.”

Letters

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Some Aspects of The Grotesque in Southern Fiction

“[A]nything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”